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The Man Behind Franklin D. Roosevelt

A Review of Henry Adams’ Harry Hopkins: A Biography

Henry Adams was a journalist, historian, and novelist born in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard University, he went on a Grand Tour to Europe. He settled in Washington D.C., where he became a journalist. Adams suffered a stroke, believed to be brought on by the news of the sinking of the Titanic.


In his book Harry Hopkins: A Biography, Henry Adams, focuses on the life of Hopkins under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the country entered the Great Depression, Adams argues, no man other than President Roosevelt had greater influence helping pull the country out than Harry Hopkins. The author begins by giving a brief description of Hopkins’s early life, and then moves on to write about Hopkins’s career as a social worker and about his work beside the president. His big spending habits and his close relationship with the president eventually caused many controversies as well as public criticisms of Hopkins. As their friendship grew, so did Roosevelt’s trust towards Hopkins, who would end up being Roosevelt’s closest advisor. Much of the work of the New Deal can be credited to Harry Hopkins; his long list of accomplishments include working as head of Relief Reform and Recovery programs such as the FERA, CWA, CCC, and WPA. Hopkins often struggled with his health, for he fought a long battle with stomach cancer while simultaneously having to deal with his second wife having breast cancer. He often ignored doctors’ warnings and worked hard both mentally and physically to help the country get out of the Depression. During World War II, Hopkins served as Roosevelt’s administrator of Lend-Lease and he often accompanied Churchill and Roosevelt during conferences. Hopkins’s relaxed, fascinating personality caused even his enemies, including his rival Harold Ickes, to like him, and his close relationship to the president helped him to put many of his plans into effect.

In the first quarter of the book, the author provides a description of Harry Hopkins’s early life and tells how he came to be one of Roosevelt’s advisors. It also briefly describes the time period before the Great Depression when Harry was head of the Works Progress Administration. Harry was born in Sioux Falls, Iowa, as the son of a harness maker. He began engaging himself in politics at an early age and by the time he was in high school, he campaigned for one of his classmates and helped him win three elections. In 1912, he took part in the Republican National convention where he often rubbed elbows with many politicians. By 1913, Harry began working with the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP). His first marriage was to Ethel Gross, with whom he had three sons: David, Robert and Steven. When the United States entered the First World War, Hopkins attempted to sign up for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, but was rejected from all three due to vision problems. In the 1920s, he joined the American Red Cross, but later resigned because it required too much time to be spent on the road, which caused him to be away from his family. Soon after, he joined the New York Tuberculosis Association and became the executive director. Finally in 1929, Hopkins met Franklin D. Roosevelt and campaigned for him for governor of New York. About the same time that Herbert Hoover became president, many Americans believed that the path to riches was in business and began investing stocks into the stock market. When the stock market crashed, they withdrew their stocks from the market. The country witnessed the beginning of what would become the Great Depression. While Hoover was making statements such as “prosperity is just around the corner,” Hopkins was already at work fighting the crisis by putting needy men to work in many parks in New York.2 In 1930, Roosevelt created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) and Hopkins was chosen to run it. However, while his professional life took flight, his personal life began to crumble. His first failing marriage had resulted in a divorce with his wife taking custody of their three sons. He later went on to marry Barbara Duncan and had a daughter named Ethel. Upon Roosevelt’s request, Hopkins created the Civilian Conservation Corps that gave jobs to young men to help preserve forests. By this time, Roosevelt and Hopkins were developing a lasting friendship and Harry was appointed as administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). His instructions were simple: give relief to the jobless, homeless, and starving. Many were in awe of Hopkins’s rate of spending. He was reported to have dispersed about $5,000,000 in only the first two hours of office. As Roosevelt’s and Hopkins’s friendship grew deeper, many began criticizing Hopkins. Secretary of the Public Works Administration (PWA) and later Hopkins’s rival, Harold Ickes, became discontented because the president was using money reserved for the PWA for Hopkins’s Civil Works Administration (CWA). After Hopkins became head of the Works Progress Administration, Ickes began criticizing him for extending his powers, oblivious to the fact that Roosevelt had knowingly created loopholes so Hopkins could extend his power. Although he had many public critics, Hopkins was deeply devoted to his work and suffered along with the American people. In a letter he wrote, “Every night when you went home and after you got home and remembered there was a telegraph you didn’t answer, the fact that you failed to answer the telephone call may have resulted in somebody not eating.”3 As if Hopkins didn’t have enough to worry about, his wife began suffering from cancer, a disastrous flood hit most of the Northwest, and there was a drought in the West.

In the second quarter of the book, the author discusses Hopkins’s role in Roosevelt’s second term as president and the time period when the country was being introduced in World War II. He also writes about Hopkins’s personal struggles. With the country slowly creeping out of the Depression, Roosevelt became worried that deficit spending would cause inflation and cut the WPA’s budget, so he ended the PWA. As Hopkins’s had predicted, the stock market took a huge plunge and the country witnessed a Roosevelt Recession. Just like the stock market, Hopkins’s mental and physical health was declining and two thirds of his stomach was cut off due to cancerous growth. With the country in a recession, Hopkins desperately tried to keep the New Deal alive. He proposed a program for heavy public works, increased spending, and continued programs such as the NYA, CCC, and WPA. This “Hopkins’ Plan” was taken to Congress where most of its parts passed. When Hopkins’s thought about running for president, Roosevelt fully supported him, but unfortunately Hopkins’ ill health forced him to reconsider. Roosevelt thought it was time to relieve Hopkins’s of his WPA duties and decided to make him Secretary of Commerce instead. When the president made Hopkins’s Secretary of Commerce, there was much criticism from the media mainly because of Hopkins’ ill health. In one of their articles, the Chicago Daily News expressed, “this is the most incomprehensible, as well as the most defensible, appointments the president has made in his six and a half years in office.”4 Again, Hopkins’s ill health was declining and the doctor had said that Hopkins’s was unable to absorb proteins and fats and as a result, he spent most of 1939 in bed. One night in May, the president invited Hopkins for dinner at the White House. Harry wasn’t feeling very well so the president suggested he stay for the night. Instead, Hopkins stayed for the next 3 and half years. Due to his ill heath, Hopkins’s resigned as Secretary of Commerce and decided to take a trip to Chicago to “relieve the president of the embarrassment of his presence during the campaign.”5

The third quarter of the book continues with Hopkins’s involvement in World War II as well as his duties during the time which he spent at the White House. After his trip to Chicago, Hopkins retuned back to the Washington and served as part of the president’s speech writing team. Once again, Hopkins was basically living in the White House and Ickes noted, “Everything has to seep through Harry Hopkins into the White House.”6 Harry grew more devoted to the president, as Adolf Berle commented, “Harry Hopkins is nice and likeable, but would commit murder for the president.”7 He was known as Roosevelt’s buffer because people would have to first get through him to get to the president. During World War II, Hopkins served as Roosevelt’s unofficial emissary to Winston Churchill, expressing that he only cared about crushing Hitler. Upon meeting Hopkins, Churchill wrote of him, “…that extraordinary man, who played...a sometimes decisive part in the whole movement of the war.”8 In 1941, Hopkins became part of the Lend-Lease program as the “bookkeeper,” but in effect it actually “made Hopkins deputy president.”9 Hopkins expressed his view in regards to helping England: “It seems to me that there is nothing in all the world as vitally important as that to make a better world to live in afterwards, because surely there must be a way to abolish the injustices and poverty that have been their economic system for many years.”10 When Stalin demanded a second front, Hopkins was sent over to Moscow to discuss about it and it was eventually approved. In 1941, Hopkins was relieved of his job as the administrator of Lend-Lease once again due to his ill health, but helped Roosevelt make the speech “asking for declaration of war”11

The fourth and final part of the book discusses Hopkins’s role in World War II, his part in Roosevelt’s “inner council,” along with the last days of the war, and the last days of his life. He became the chief of staff to the president, meaning, “There was nothing that came to the attention to Roosevelt that did not also come to him.”12 Regarding the war, Hopkins duties included: “production, strategy, procurement, diplomacy…manpower, [and] labor relations.”13 Hopkins later met Louise Harper, former Paris Editor of Harper’s Bazaar, on the job, and they got married on July 30th at the White House. With Hopkins’s stay at the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt began feeling that Hopkins was changing and “had lost some of his values,” since he was spending too much time among the rich.14 She was also envious of Roosevelt’s and Hopkins’s close friendship because she felt Roosevelt couldn’t relax with her the same way he did with Hopkins. Roosevelt asked Hopkins “to assist [him] in carrying out the responsibilities placed upon me by the act of March 11, 1941, entitled ‘An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States.’”15 In 1943, Hopkins was actively involved in the year respectively known as the Year of the Conferences. His role was, “advising, placating ruffled egos, and smoothing things behind the scenes.”16 Along with Churchill and Roosevelt, he attended the Casablanca Conference, where they discussed the Allied strategy in the war. He also attended the Trident Conference and Quebec Conference as well as the Tehran Conference, where Hopkins served as Secretary of State. Hopkins’s power was said to have reach its all time high in 1943. A newspaper article ran, “Hopkins’s is taking over more and more, where Mr. Roosevelt [left] off.”17 In 1945, Hopkins attended the Yalta Conference and later sent a message to Roosevelt saying, “The Russians have given in so much at this conference that I don’t think we should let them down. Let the British disagree if they want to-and continue their disagreement at Moscow.”18 On February 18th, Hopkins said goodbye to Roosevelt and they never saw each other again. President Roosevelt died six weeks later. Truman became the next president and although Hopkins originally planned to resign after Roosevelt’s death, Truman sent him on a trip to Moscow. Hopkins formally resigned from office on July 2nd. He received several awards such as the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws. In 1946, he was confined to a hospital bed and he died at 11:35 on January 29th, 1946.

Henry Adams believes that Harry Hopkins was arguably one of the most powerful men in the world and that no man, other than Roosevelt, had a greater influence on the United States during the Great Depression. He argues that Harry Hopkins’s close personal relationship to Roosevelt essentially allowed Hopkins to extend his power, so he could get his objectives completed with the WPA and other organizations. While the author offers some negative aspects of Hopkins by including many criticisms of Hopkins, such as him being a big spender, he often ends up defending Hopkins’s reasons for his actions. The author also gives credit to Hopkins for Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s friendship and helping ease up tensions between the three superpowers: Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. While Henry Adams does make numerous valid points about Hopkins influence, at times, he somewhat overestimates Hopkins’s role in the war. In 1977, a review of this book was done in the newspaper The Library Journal. It states that Adams, “had done an excellent job of marshalling his resources as well as providing a highly readable narrative.”18 It continues on to state that “this book makes use of documents and is better balanced, particularly in discussing Hopkins’s career prior to the Outbreak of World War II.” Henry Adams’s incorporation of real life documents and journals of Hopkins, Roosevelt, and, Churchill along with many other document’s, contributed a lot to the book. It brought a sense of reality to the person and helps the reader to better understand Hopkins’s complex mind. The journals were very interesting to read. The book, overall, was well written with understandable, clear vocabulary. The author did an excellent job of capturing Hopkins’s character, providing the reader with his both his humorous and serious sides. A second review in the same year states, “Adams argues convincingly that Hopkins was central to the development of what we know call the Imperial Presidency… and became the first real ‘assistant president.’”19 This review was right to state that Hopkins had a significant impact on Roosevelt’s presidency. Both of these reviews were not critical but one must keep in mind that they were both written in the same year that the book was published and therefore they share about the same viewpoints as the author of the book. The 1970s were more tolerant of the New Deal programs and liberalism and therefore more accepting of this book.

When the Great Depression struck, it brought grief, devastation and poverty to many, but no one thought it would change America for good, and mark a turning point politically, culturally, and economically. Up until Roosevelt’s administration, the U.S. government’s economic strategy had mainly been laissez-faire, but Roosevelt began applying the concepts of Keynes Economics. The government became more involved socially, creating millions of jobs and welfare agencies such as social security, which still stands today. They also grew more accepting of different races such as Blacks, Latinos and Asians along with other religious minorities, marking a turning point socially and culturally.

The majority of people in the Great Depression suffered from poverty and thus government made an attempt to help the poor instead of just aiding big businesses and banks. Most importantly, the New Deal program set the example for future programs such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Now, with the economy currently in a recession, Obama has followed their footsteps and created the Stimulus Plan.

Henry Adams provides readers with a glimpse of the Depression from the government’s point of view, through one man’s story. This man’s story shows the struggles that the people of America had to face by showing the struggles Hopkins, himself, had to face. Although the American people and Hopkins were on opposite sides of the crisis, they felt the same pain, formed the same bonds, and worked relentlessly to climb out of the deep hole the United States had fallen into–the Great Depression.


1: Adams, Henry. Preface (12) Harry Hopkins: A Biography, Toronto, Canada
2: Adams, Henry. (43)
3: Adams, Henry. (90)
4: Adams, Henry. (148)
5: Adams, Henry. (178)
6: Adams, Henry. (184)
7: Adams, Henry. (188)
8: Adams, Henry. (204)
9: Adams, Henry. (216)
10: Adams, Henry. (219)
11: Adams, Henry. (261)
12: Adams, Henry. (262)
13: Adams, Henry (262)
14: Adams, Henry (289)
15: Adams, Henry. (296)
16: Adams, Henry. (305)
17: Adams, Henry. (326)
18: Library Journal, 1977
19: Brudnoy, David.“Books in Brief.” 1977

Student Bio

Lida Aghazadah was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and moved to America in 2000. In her free time she likes to draw, but her favorite activity is ceramics. After attending college, she hopes to travel around the country and one day become a scientist.


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